Owls in Western North Carolina

Published 11:21 am Monday, February 28, 2011

Owls: The very name conjures up visions, not all good, as for centuries owls have been associated with death, black magic and the dark images of the night.

In real life, owls are chiefly nocturnal, although certain species are active during the daylight hours, as well as the hours of dawn and dusk.

In Western North Carolina we have five widespread species, as well as several that migrate south for winter months.

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The five resident species are the Eastern Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl and the Barn Owl, while those that move south include the Long-eared and Short-eared Owls and rarely, the magnificent Snowy Owl.

Our most familiar owls are the Screech, Great Horned and the Barred, and these are found commonly throughout our region in suburban gardens, cities and woodlots.

Owls are usually found at night by listening to their calls and tracking them down. Each species has its own distinctive call, and they can be very vocal when attracting mates and going through courtship behavior.

The Eastern Screech-Owl, the small-eared owl, is found throughout western North Carolina in woods with dense clumps of pines.

The long drawn–out whinnies and squealings it utters are a familiar sound of wooded areas. This small owl comes in two color phases; gray or a rich chestnut-brown.

The gray phase birds are predominantly birds of western areas, while the red phases show an easterly bias. Often mixed pairs of these color phases can be found breeding together.

Screech-Owls nest in disused woodpecker holes, natural cavities and man-made nest boxes, so leaving dead trees around could attract these birds into your area.

Barred Owls are larger, do not have ear tufts and are found from southern swamps to mountain forests. They are gray-brown in coloration, with a strong barring of black stripes on their breast and dark brown eyes.

They are well known for their loud “whoopings” and calls that sound like a troupe of monkeys in distress.

Their calls are commonly paraphrased as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y’all.”

Larger still is the Great Horned Owl.

They are crow-sized and their nesting habits differ considerably from its far smaller relative, the Screech-Owl. Although Great Horned Owls have been recorded building their own nests, they more commonly take over the nests of Red-tailed Hawks, crows and those of other large birds of prey.

Nesting starts very early in the year, and the birds have been observed sitting on eggs under a blanket of snow as early as December.

Great Horned Owls are also known as Hoot Owls and have large ear tufts that emphasis their size even more.

Their deep hoots are common sounds throughout the late winter and early spring as they pair up and establish territories throughout our area. They are actually one of the most widespread owls being found from Canada to Tierra del Fuego.

All of these owls can be found roosting during the day if one searches diligently amongst the large pines and the deep thickets. In real life, owls are indeed fascinating birds and not the mysterious, evil birds of old.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 16 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours. www.birdventures.com.

He and Chris also own and operate the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store. For more information on any of the birding activities in the area, drop by the store or check his website at www.asheville.wbu.com.